Friday, July 11, 2014

Apes Together Strong: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes hits all the required big notes of a Hollywood spectacle. It also delivers what one would reasonably expect from a Planet of the Apes movie, up to and including a chimpanzee firing two guns while riding on a horse. And yet it’s not a mindless action spectacle because the filmmakers are interested in letting us understand its characters not only as pawns of plot or objects of allegory – though they are that – but as living, breathing beings. Like its predecessor, 2011’s surprisingly effective Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn finds rich avenues of exploration, turning imagery and metaphor from the 60’s and 70’s Apes into bigger, slicker, modern efforts that lose none of the soul. This is a franchise that has always been at its best when it uses its monkeys to reflect humanity back at itself. With its latest iteration, advanced digital wizardry lets us stare deeply into the eyes of an intelligent ape, see ourselves there, and confront what we find. It’s a film with action that’s thrilling and exciting, but mournful as well.

The smartly constructed screenplay by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver finds the good and bad in both man and ape. We see the groups as mirror images, tribes living in tenuous post-apocalyptic peace. In the ten years since research lab apes staged a revolt and fled into the forest outside San Francisco at the end of Rise, scientists inadvertently brought about a plague. Called the simian flu, the virus was an artificial concoction that decimated humans, leaving apes unharmed. Without knowledge of the other’s existence, man and ape live their lives on either side of the crumbling Golden Gate Bridge. In an early scene, apes gather around their leader. Later, humans do the same. Both sets of crowd noises a represented through similar walls of sound, murmuring exclamations that are more alike than not. When man and ape discover the other, there is fear, then suspicion tempered with curiosity. But each tribe has warmongerers who cannot see peaceful coexistence. We come to understand that violence will arrive through misunderstandings, egos, and fear.

First we spend time with the apes. The opening shot – after a hokey pre-title expositional montage – stares deep into the eyes of Caesar, the ape who led the rebellion and now leads his clan of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans. The camera pulls back until we see a forest filled with apes. With a hand signal, they leap down on the attack. They’re hunting deer. In smooth, swooping shots we follow their deadly strategy. We see what they’re capable of. They take the kills back to their village, a visual marvel of rudimentary houses, public spaces (simian versions of a schoolroom, a town hall, a cafeteria), and carved logs set in a ring around the perimeter. As they interact we learn about their society. They communicate with each other through sign language, grunts, whoops, guttural broken English, and meaningful glances. We watch, subtitles our only guide. The workings of their society are intriguingly revealed through action and image. It’s fascinating, preserving their status as animals and shading in subtleties of characterization through magisterial silences.

It almost never looks silly. The effects work is remarkable, not just for bringing the fantasy to life in convincing ways but for the performances it helps shape. The monkeys are digital creations around performance capture data. Like last time, Caesar is created by Andy Serkis, who performed the grunting dialogue as well as movements down to smallest the twitch, and a team of talented technicians at WETA Digital. It’s a moving, complicated performance as nuanced as any fully human work, extraordinarily detailed even and especially in extreme close-up. All the apes are created this way, enlivened by a fine ensemble (Toby Kebbell, Nick Thurston, Karin Konoval, Judy Greer) who are transformed into believably soulful monkeys imbued with personality and emotion beyond what makeup or trained animals could supply. They are, in writing and acting, among the most memorable screen characters in recent memory, sympathetic and humane with multifaceted motivations and expressive faces. What stand out most vividly are their eyes, so alive and compelling you can see the gears of thought and feeling turning, giving them heavy emotional lifting in unforgiving close-ups. We know them as fully as any person on screen.

Caesar, a compassionate leader and caring father, meets his human counterpart in the man (Jason Clarke) who arrives in the forest looking to restart an old dam in order to restore power to the fledgling human camp living in a small section the crumbling, weedy, fortified ruins of San Francisco. He has his wife (Keri Russell) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow. Once they discover the animals, they want to learn more about the apes and their culture, convinced these intelligent creatures will help if they hear them out. Caesar wants to keep the peace, but other apes agitate for war. The humans are weak. Why not kill now and never worry again? Other humans aren’t so kind, either. Back at their base, a leader (Gary Oldman) is stockpiling heavy weaponry. He wants to reclaim the dam by wiping the apes out. As characters, the people aren’t as deeply felt as their animal counterparts, but the strong ensemble brings complexity to what’s on the page. The strength of the writing is in its activating of the dread and desperation of its scenario as pieces slowly fall into place, as weapons and suspicions reach the inevitable.

In its broad strokes, the conflict is expected and the plot moves towards the typical summer blockbuster conflagration that grows tiresome. But director Matt Reeves (of other excellent efforts Cloverfield and Let Me In) has given us down time, quiet reflection, moral complications slowly developing. We’re not tired of action before we even get there. He thinks in shots and sequences, deploying his camera with patience where many of his contemporaries slap together chaos. Here he builds tension and empathy out of crisp staging and long master shots. How better to be overwhelmed by the sight of hundreds of apes emerging in the trees behind humans in the foreground? By the time the action sequences roar, he cuts for the impact of clarity, not the impact of shocks and sensations. He pans 360 degrees with a tank’s turret as its driver changes from human to ape, foreground struggle reflected in the background that sweeps across the entire conflict. He watches as groups of combatants swarm over rooftops. He finds memorable moments: gunfire lighting flashes in the darkness; a kind character dropped to his death out of frame; a tight close-up of a whispered warning.

Reeves can’t get around the ultimate wearying effect of the typical blockbuster climax, but action is all the more impactful for being rooted in flesh and blood.  Digital beings and stock characters alike are invested with humanity. Every violent action has weight, consequences that matter. It’s a film that doesn’t want to see anyone hurt, certainly not the main sympathetic characters, but even villains of both human and animal variety who remain stubbornly humanized individuals. They do bad things for what they think are good reasons, reasons we can understand. Humans should be scared of apes. The animals are strong, resourceful, adaptable. The apes should be scared of humans. They have guns. This is a gripping sci-fi adventure that expresses not shoot-‘em-up militarism, but regret that the worst of man and ape brings conflict to the fore. It slowly brings two worlds to crisis and grows sad as the prospect of peace dwindles. It makes for a multipurpose allegory, applicable to any conflict with two intractable, yet similar, sides. Peace is close, yet, with great sadness, war is closer.

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